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December 2012, Week 3

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Special Report

The Racist Roots of 'Right-To-Work' Laws

By Chris Kromm
Facing South
December 13, 2012

http://www.southernstudies.org/2012/12/the-racist-roots-of-right-to-work-laws.html

This week, Republican lawmakers in Michigan --
birthplace of the United Auto Workers and, more
broadly, the U.S. labor movement -- shocked the
nation by becoming the 24th state (see map) to pass
"right-to-work" legislation, which allows non-union
employees to benefit from union contracts.

While Michigan's momentous decision has received
widespread media attention, little has been said
about the origins of "right-to-work" laws, which find
their roots in extreme pro-segregationist and anti-
communist elements in the 1940s South.

The history of anti-labor "right-to-work" laws starts
in Houston. It was there in 1936 that Vance Muse,
an oil industry lobbyist, founded the Christian
American Association with backing from Southern
oil companies and industrialists from the Northeast.

As Dartmouth sociologist Marc Dixon notes in his
fascinating history of the period [
http://www.dartmouth.edu/~socy/pdfs/MDD_Limit_Labor_07.pdf, "The Christian American Association
was the first in the nation to champion the 'Right-
to-Work' as a full-blown political slogan."

Muse was a fixture in far-right politics in the South
before settling into his anti-labor crusade. In his
1946 book "Southern Exposure," crusading
journalist Stetson Kennedy wrote:

    The man Muse is quite a character. He is six foot
    four, wears a ten-gallon hat, but generally
    reserves his cowboy boots for trips Nawth. Now
    over fifty, Muse has been professionally engaged
    in reactionary enterprises for more than a quarter
    of a century.

As Kennedy described, these causes included
opposing women's suffrage, child labor laws,
integration and growing efforts to change the
Southern political order, as represented in the
threat of Roosevelt's New Deal.

Muse's sister and associate at the Christan
American Association, Ida Darden, openly
complained about the First Lady's "Eleanor Clubs"
saying they (as related by Kennedy):

    ...stood for "$15 a week salary for all nigger house
    help, Sundays off, no washing, and no cleaning
    upstairs." As an afterthought, she added, "My
    nigger maid wouldn't dare sit down in the same
    room with me unless she sat on the floor at my
    feet!"

    Allowing herself to go still further, the little lady
    went on to say, "Christian Americans can't afford
    to be anti-Semitic, but we know where we stand
    on the Jews, all right.

The Association also suspected Catholics -- which
Dixon notes caused the downfall of their crusades in
neighboring Louisiana.

But for far-right conservatives like Muse, as well as
industry groups like the Southern States Industrial
Council, labor -- including black labor -- posed an
especially dangerous threat in Texas. Thanks to a
burgeoning wartime economy, along with labor
organizing drives spearheaded by the Congress of
Industrial Organizations and, to a lesser extent, the
American Federation of Labor, unions were rapidly
growing in Texas. After hovering around 10 percent
of the workforce during the 1930s, union
membership exploded by 225 percent during the
next decade.

Muse and the Christian American Association saw
danger. Not only were the unions expanding the
bargaining power -- and therefore improving the
wages and working conditions -- of working-class
Texans, they also constituted a political threat. The
CIO in particular opposed Jim Crow and demanded
an end to segregation. Unions were an important
political ally to FDR and the New Deal. And always
lurking in the shadows was the prospect of a Red
Menace, stoked by anti-communist hysteria.

Working in concert with segregationists and right-
wing business leaders, Muse and the Association
swiftly took action. Their first step in 1941 was to
push an "anti-violence" bill that placed blanket
restrictions on public union picketing at
workplaces. The stated goal was to ensure
"uninterrupted" industrial production during World
War II, although Texas had the fewest number of
strikes in the South, and the law applied to all
industries, war-related or not.

Their success with the "anti-violence" bill spurred
Muse and the Christian American Association to
push for -- and pass -- similar laws throughout the
South. Mississippi adopted an anti-violence statute
in 1942; Florida, Arkansas, and Alabama passed
similar laws in 1943. It also emboldened them to
take on a much bigger prize: ending the ability of
labor groups to run a "closed shop," where union
benefits extend only to union members.

In 1945, the Christian American Association --
along with allies cemented in earlier anti-union
legislative battles, including the Fight for Free
Enterprise and the vehemently anti-union Texas Lt.
Gov. John Lee Smith -- introduced a right-to-work
bill in Texas. It passed the House by a 60 to 53
margin, but pro-New Deal forces stopped it in the
state senate. Two years later, thanks to a well-
funded campaign from the Association and industry
-- and internal divisions between the craft-oriented
AFL and the more militant CIO -- Texas' right-to-
work bill was signed into law.

While working to pass right-to-work legislation in
Texas, Muse and the Association took their efforts to
Arkansas and Florida, where a similar message
equating union growth with race-mixing and
communism led to the passage of the nation's first
right-to-work laws in 1944. In all, 14 states passed
such legislation by 1947, when conservatives in
Congress successfully passed Section 14(b) of the
Taft-Hartley Act, enshrining the right of states to
pass laws that allow workers to receive union
benefits without joining a union.

Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., who
saw an alliance with labor as crucial to advancing
civil rights as well as economic justice for all
workers, spoke out against right-to-work laws; this
1961 statement by King was widely circulated this
week during Michigan's labor battles:

    In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must
    guard against being fooled by false slogans, such
    as `right to work.' It is a law to rob us of our civil
    rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy
    labor unions and the freedom of collective
    bargaining by which unions have improved wages
    and working conditions of everyone.Wherever
    these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job
    opportunities are fewer and there are no civil
    rights.

Interestingly, 11 years later, Kansas also passed a
right-to-work law, with the support of Texas-born
energy businessman Fred Koch, who also viewed
unions as vessels for communism and integration.
Koch's sons Charles and David went on to form the
Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity, which
pushed for the Michigan right-to-work measure, and
is now advocating for states that already have such
laws, like North Carolina and Virginia, to further
enshrine them in their state constitutions.

And what about Muse? According to the Texas State
Historical Association:

    Muse died on October 15, 1950, at his Houston
    home, where his efforts with the Christian
    Americans had originated. At the time of his
    death he was working on a right-to-work
    amendment to the federal Constitution.

Hat tip to Mark Ames at NSFWCorp who wrote about
the same issue. Other valuable sources on the civil
rights/labor connection include Michael Honey's
Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights, Michael
Boston's Labor, Civil Rights and the Hughes Tool
Company and Barbara Griffith's The Crisis of
American Labor: Operation Dixie and the Defeat of
the CIO.

___________________________________________

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